Reflections on the Deepwater Horizon Disaster: Ten Years Later

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Ten years ago this week, a drilling rig called the Deepwater Horizon exploded 41 miles off the Louisiana coast, setting in motion the biggest oil spill in U.S. history. The damaged wellhead sitting a mile below the ship poured millions of barrels of oil into the surrounding waters, crippling valuable fisheries, destroying livelihoods, fouling 1,300 miles of shoreline from Florida to Texas and leaving many square miles of residue on the ocean floor. The disaster also revealed a culture of carelessness in both the oil industry and the federal agencies whose job it was to police that industry and to make sure it operated safely.

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Some good things have happened since then. Thanks partly to nature’s resilience, within two years the oil had mostly gone from sight –– evaporated, consumed by bacteria or dispersed to deep water and the ocean floor. The beaches are now largely clean, and the fishing industry has rebounded, with notable exceptions, oyster and crab stocks in particular. But, the damage to deepwater corals and fragile reefs may never be repaired. Truth is, the full toll on the gulf and its marine life may not be known for years.

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When all is said and done, BP and its partners will have forked over $7 billion to Louisiana alone –– intended largely for environmental restoration…Since the 1930s, the state has lost more than 2,000 square miles of land to subsidence and sea level rise. That, along with the slicing and dicing of coastal wetlands by the oil companies, not only destroyed nurseries vital to the fishing industry but also robbed the state of natural protection against superstorms…The spill also triggered a long-overdue examination of the oil business and its regulators. Two major reports found that the Deepwater Horizon explosion resulted from a major miscalculation of the well’s ability to withstand sudden increases in pressure, as well as a misplaced faith in the ability of blowout preventers to seal off wells in an emergency… As a result, the Obama administration developed new rules for each stage of the drilling process –– from rig design to spill response –– including tougher standards for well design and for vital equipment like the blowout preventers. It also took aim at a longstanding and cosy relationship between the oil companies and their overseers in the Interior Department... All was well and good, until the Trump administration, with its “energy dominance” doctrine, decided for the rollback of Mr. Obama’s ambitious fuel efficiency standards. The Interior Department’s latest five-year plan, now on hold because of court rulings, would open nearly every square inch of America’s coastal waters to new exploration.

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Therein lies one of the nasty little ironies facing the friends of coastal restoration. So far, their only dependable financing model has been the revenue from the catastrophic spill, but the BP money won’t last forever. One thing the state had been counting on is a steady stream of money from offshore oil leases. This implies a robust oil industry, which in turn means more risk of offshore spills and more emissions from automobile tailpipes, which in turn means more sea level rise.

The Deepwater Horizon explosion a decade ago marked a devastating chapter in U.S. environmental history, unleashing the largest oil spill in the nation's annals. While some recovery has been observed, with beaches cleaned and fisheries rebounding, the Gulf's deepwater ecosystems remain scarred indefinitely. The incident prompted introspection into industry practices and regulatory oversight, leading to reforms aimed at enhancing safety standards. However, subsequent policy shifts under the Trump administration, advocating for increased offshore drilling and relaxed environmental regulations, present new challenges for coastal restoration efforts and underscore the complex interplay between environmental stewardship, economic interests, and energy policy.
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